The war reparations of Sidney Nolan and Benjamin Britten – reckless innocence?

Nov 22, 2020

Was the Anglo-Australian cultural cringe solely a one way transmission from settler colony to metropole mothership? I have been re-examining the possibility that Australian creatives might have influenced British culture over the past century, especially since the Second World War.

In late December 1948, Sir Kenneth Clark visited Sydney. He had been invited to lecture on The Idea of a Great Gallery in Melbourne on January 27, 1949 by Sir Keith Murdoch, Chair of the Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria.

Murdoch had established the Herald Professorship of Fine Arts at the University of Melbourne in 1946. The first incumbent of the Chair was Joseph Burke, who had been recommended by Sir Kenneth. Burke worked in Clark’s department of ‘home publicity’ in the British Ministry of Information in London during the war before becoming a very senior civil servant involved in negotiations with the Americans about atomic bomb development, including attending the Potsdam Conference. He is described in a biography of Clement Attlee as ‘an intelligence officer who knew a lot about art.’

Sir Kenneth had spent the war years making the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square a much loved public space for Britons and others to see art (albeit largely in reproductions because most of works had been evacuated to Wales) and to hear concerts despite the Blitz.

He’d also set up the War Artists Advisory Committee that was a major support to contemporary British artists as they depicted the war at home and abroad.

In 1977 Clark wrote in the Introduction to his The Other Half: A Self Portrait that in setting up the WAAC

‘I was not so naïve as to suppose that we should secure many masterpieces, or even a record of the war that could not be better achieved by photography. My aim, which of course I did not disclose, was simply to keep artists at work on any pretext, and, as far as possible, to prevent them from being killed.’

The UK’s Imperial War Museum web page on The Secret Purpose of the Was Artists Advisory Committee states:

Officially at least, the purpose of the Committee was propaganda. Art exhibitions were organised in Britain and America both to raise morale and promote Britain’s image abroad.The WAAC had another aim. Clark’s generation had been marked by the deaths of many artists and writers in the First World War, and it was also hoped that by keeping artists usefully employed the scheme might prevent a new generation of British artists from being killed. Despite these efforts, three artists, Eric Ravilious, Thomas Hennell and Albert Richards, were killed during the Second World War.”

It may be that Clark himself was discovering a fresh way of seeing during his one and only visit to Australia in the late 1940s. He was prompted by Joseph Burke to meet the thirty year old Sidney Nolan in late December 1948. It is interesting that Burke, a former British intelligence officer, did this despite Nolan still being technically on the run before he could take advantage of the Australian government’s 1949 amnesty for war-time deserters.

Burke also recommended that Clark visit the Sunday and John Reed at Heide to see the Ned Kelly paintings Nolan had painted there during his years as an army absconder, advising Clark that Kelly was ‘the bush ranger anarchist and hero of the local school boys and communists.’

Once back in London Sir Kenneth championed young Australian artists such as Nolan and Drysdale to the point that Joseph Burke called him the ‘deus ex machina’ of the sudden blossoming of an Australian art market.

Clark encouraged Sidney and his wife Cynthia to go to London and in 1950 he introduced them to Benjamin Britten and his partner Peter Pears.

Conscription had been introduced in Britain for single men aged between 20 and 22 in May 1939. In their mid twenties, Britten and Pears went to Canada and the USA, where they secured visas for a year. In June 1939 Britten wrote to his sister from Toronto that he was “seriously considering staying over here permanently. I haven’t decided yet of course and I’m terribly torn…”

They spent July 1939 at Woodstock with Aaron Copland who recalled in 1984 that Ben and Peter worried constantly about whether to return to England. I wrote to Ben: “You owe it to England to stay here. After all, anyone can shoot a gun – but how many can write music like you?”

Pears and Britten were thinking of applying for permanent resident status – but then realised that actually that would make them liable to conscription in the USA. They returned to Britain in April 1942.

Within days Britten had lodged his application to the Conscientious Objection Tribunal stating that he was not prepared to be associated with any military activity but was prepared to

“undertake other constructive civilian work provided that it is not connected with any of the armed forces,”

noting that he was “offering my services to the Committee for the Encouragement of Music and Art” that had been formed by Kenneth Clark as a sister organisation to the War Artists Advisory Committee.

Britten wrote to his American friend to Elizabeth Mayer on June 5, 1942:

“I have passed my first hurdle, exemption from combatent (sic) work, but I still have to fight what I am given to do – digging trenches & roads, etc. .. I have a fair chance of getting what I want to do as the Appeal court is smaller & more intimate.”

and the next day to her daughter Beata Wachstein:

I have had my first tribunal, which was pretty lousy, I admit. (Peter got his postponed as he was on tour). After a long struggle I was given exemption from combatent (sic) service, but made to do non-combatent (sic) work (digging trenches etc.). I am going to appeal against that, but I don’t know what chance there is of getting work which I really believe in to do. It’s an awful shame, because there’s loads of stuff I can do – I’ve had offers from Government Film companies, the BBC,and lecture tours to the troops etc., to say nothing of commissions etc. But I think it’s highly unlikely that I’ll be allowed to do it. Probably I shall get farm work – pretty hard work, but at least constructive. Peter I think will fare better, since he is connected with the stage, & he is more likely to be allowed to continue that – they’re so keen on keeping up the morale.”

In late September 1942 to Britten wrote to a fellow Conscientious Objection, Thomas Pitfield, that ‘At my first Tribunal I had a pretty sticky time of it…and only got Non-combatent(sic). The appellate was far more sympathetic.’

Britten appeared before the Chairman of the Appellate Tribunal,Sir Francis Floud, who was the father of his old school friends, twins Peter and Mollie. In his June 1942 Appeal statement Britten insisted:

“ conscientious objection covers non-combatant as well as combatant service in the army. The reference to the RAMC & non-combatant service in the summary of further evidence does not fairly represent what I tried to convey to the Tribunal. I could not conscientiously join the RAMC or the non-combatant corps because by doing so I should be no less actively participating in the war than if I were a combatant against which service the Tribunal recognised the validity of my objection. I realise however that in total war, it is impossible to avoid all participation of an indirect kind but I believe that I must draw the line as far away from direct participation as possible. It is for this reason that I appeal to be left free to follow that line of service to the community which my conscience approves & my training makes possible.”

He wrote to Elizabeth Mayer on 30 September 1942:

‘Talking of army, you know that I got the best possible result at my second Tribunal? I am now left completely free to go on with my work…. I was terribly relieved by it of course, & immediately started feeling guilty about the whole situation – why was I able to go on working while so many others…. etc. etc. However, that was just reaction I suppose, & I’ve made up for it by doing this load of work which otherwise I wouldn’t touch, & also by having the insults & embarrassments which are pretty frequent even in 1942.”

Britten toured extensively with the Committee for the Encouragement of Music and Art and also managed to write Peter Grimes before the war ended.

After VE Day, Yehudi Menuhinrecalled in 1977:

“I asked the British authorities if I might visit the [German concentration] camps in their sector, the British gave me permission to go, Gerald Moore agreed to come with me. Then, about a week before our departure, at a party given in London by the music publishers Boosey & Hawkes, I met Benjamin Britten. Returned to England after spending the war years largely (sic) in the United States, he too was casting about for some commitment to the human condition whose terrible depths had been so newly revealed, and was immediately enthusiastic about my initiative. He urged me to take him, and Gerald Moore very gracefully gave way.”

They were in Germany for several days.

In 1961 Britten wrote to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau asking him to sing in his War Requiem to mark the reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral. He told the German baritone:

“What I am writing will probably become one of my most important works. It is a major requiem for chorus and orchestra (commemorating the dead of all nations during the last war), and I am inserting many poems by an English poet, Wilfred Owen, who fell in the First World War, into the Latin text. These splendid lyrics, filled with hate of the rage to destroy, form a kind of commentary to the requiem.”

Fischer -Dieskau wrote of Britten:

“Ben found it difficult to deal with the world. Though he was careful never to let anyone see that side of him, darkness reigned all the more frequently in his music, speaking of the shadow side of his life.”

Britten himself told Sidney Nolan:

“Really what the whole thing is, it’s a kind of reparation. That’s what the War Requiem is about; it is reparation.”

In 1970 Britten and Pears visited Australia for the Adelaide Festival and spent time travelling with Sidney and Cynthia Nolan, including visiting Sid’s brother Raymond’s grave in Cooktown. Raymond had died on active service, albeit in a drowning accident, in July 1945 while Sidney himself was AWOL.

In 1978 Nolan presented 252 paintings and drawings, his Gallipoli series, to the Australian War Memorial in memory of Raymond. They had a certain repetitive quality.

At Aldeburgh,where Britten and Pears had established their musical and personal base, there were plans to add an art gallery to Snape Maltings to house Nolan’s paintings. But Britten died of heart disease in early December 1976, a few days after Cynthia Nolan suicided in London. Nolan found his own Red House where he built his studio and gallery at The Rodd in Wales.

The interchange of ideas bewteen the painter and the composer are set out in an obituary of Nolan published in 1992, currently on the Britten-Pears Red House website to mark the cententary of his birth.

Despite his desertion from the Australian Army in war time, Nolan was appointed a Knight Bachelor in 1981 and received the Queen’s personal gift of the Order of Merit in 1983, followed by the Companion of the Order of Australia in 1988. Britten had also been made OM, in 1965.

Kenneth Clark had written in his preface to Colin MacInness and Bryan Robertson’s 1961 book on Sidney Nolan:

“Nolan’s painting seems to me to resemble.. the music of Benjamin Britten. Not, of course, that Nolan has Britten’ immense technical resources… But both are ready to assault, with a sort of reckless innocence, subjects from which more prudent men would have drawn back…their heroes are the odd men out – Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, Ned Kelly and Bracegirdle… in both their imaginations there is something very strange just over the horizon; something which may never reveal itself, but which gives, by refraction, a faint colour of menace to almost all their work.”


Nolan painting of Benjamin Britten:


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